Since the election President Obama has received a wide range of unsolicited advice regarding his legislative relations as they pertain to his second term agenda and, most immediately, avoiding a plunge over the fiscal cliff. A fair number of the comments, in an echo of the pre-election punditry that ultimately led to Nate Silver selling three billion new books, suggest that the key to legislative success is not really policy, but personality. If only Obama were a warmer person, a better schmoozer or for that matter a better golfer, Congress would follow his lead and come to a deal. Much of this should involve hospitality, and better yet, food.
Bill Keller, for instance, argues in favor of “conciliatory outreach and a few rounds of golf with the majority leader”: “Obama knows his only route to the large legacy he craves leads through the more temperate Republicans, and he knows (as a man who voraciously consumes his press reviews) that winning votes requires something he has neglected, working the room. It requires old-fashioned schmoozing and flattery and favors, accompanied by high-minded appeals to the public.”
Over the weekend, Maureen Dowd suggested that Obama learn “some leadership lessons”—from Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III of all people. After all, RG III is a team player (on a losing team, but still…); by contrast, “Obama gets tangled up in his head — trying to decide if he’s too noble to play politics or if spending some evenings schmoozing with pols and flattering them to further his agenda will leave him too depleted…” (This has been a Dowd theme for a while. In early November she decided Obama was an introvert and approvingly quoted the Center for American Progress’s Neera Tanden as saying “it’s stunning that [Obama’s] in politics, because he really doesn’t like people.”)
She goes on to note that “a Democratic senator recently told me: ‘If only the president would have us over to the White House sometimes and talk to us, it could really help. When Bill Clinton called and asked if he could have my vote, I was more prone to do it because we had developed a rapport.’”
This morning, Jon Meacham piled on the ‘rapport’ bandwagon, drawing on his new biography of Thomas Jefferson to push for Obama to revive Jefferson’s “constant campaign of using his social hours — and particularly his dinner table — as a way of making the rougher edges of politics smooth.” Meacham notes that “Jefferson’s dinner campaigns were intensely practical. He believed in constant conversation between the president and lawmakers, for ‘if the members are to know nothing but what is important enough to be put in a public message,’ Jefferson wrote, ‘it becomes a government of chance and not of design.’”
It is worth noting, as regards Jefferson, that James Sterling Young’s careful 1966 history of the era, The Washington Community 1800-1828 is more circumspect. Young endorses Jefferson’s culinary efforts (and the excellent imported wine he served). But he stresses that Jefferson did not hold bipartisan dinners, inviting opposition Federalists and his own Democratic-Republicans separately – after all a big part of his idea was to “cultivate a sense of comity among his partisans on the Hill” (p. 169). Further, it is not clear whether these events ‘worked’ beyond impressing legislators with Jefferson’s own brilliance. Young concludes that “based more upon the efforts Jefferson made to lead than upon legislative results, and relying largely upon the often colored testimony of contemporary legislators, most studies tend, too, to overstate Jefferson’s influence” (p. 179).
Now, rapport is a good thing; so is dinner; so is French wine. No one would argue that political niceties do not make a difference – at the margins. But, as political scientists (to name a few: Jon Bond, George Edwards, Richard Fleisher, Paul Light, Mark Peterson, Steve Shull…) showed in a flurry of work starting some two decades ago, Young was right: presidential political skills are themselves a marginal factor in achieving legislative success. Structural matters, such as the partisan makeup of Congress and the constraints imposed by the distribution of public opinion, matter far more than presidential charm. Presidents do have some control over how they react to those structural features – for instance, in the agenda they select and how they frame it. They need to be careful of what Edwards calls “overreach”, which he argues undermined Obama’s first term; and they are better off avoiding a centralized legislative formulation process that privileges political point-scoring over wider, substantive input.
Obama himself does seem to understand the broad outlines here. When Time’s Fareed Zakaria suggested to Obama in early 2012 that his legislative difficulties stemmed from being “cool and aloof” and thus unable to form a relationship with Speaker Boehner, the president retorted:
“You know, the truth is, actually, when it comes to Congress, the issue is not personal relationships….In terms of Congress, the reason we’re not getting enough done right now is because you’ve got a Congress that is deeply ideological and sees a political advantage in not getting stuff done. And I—John Boehner and I get along fine. We had a great time playing golf together. That’s not the issue. The problem was that no matter how much golf we played or no matter how much we yukked it up, he had trouble getting his caucus to go along with doing the responsible thing on a whole bunch of issues over the past year.”
Maybe the president really has read the literature! he might send it over to the New York Times.